PORTLAND, ME — The city has reversed its decision to prohibit an orthodox rabbi from hosting weekly prayer services at his Portland home.
Zoning board of appeals members voted 5-0 late Thursday to allow Rabbi Moshe Wilansky to continue hosting Saturday prayer meetings, a ruling that eased the concerns of many religious leaders and civil liberties advocates.
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The decision came after a demonstration on the steps of city hall that afternoon and passionate pleas from Wilansky supporters who crammed the meeting that followed.
The protest drew several area religious leaders and a crowd of more than 100 – many fearful the city’s interpretation of what constitutes a “place of worship” could have had sweeping consequences that put home-based prayer groups at risk.
“This is a part of our traditions that has existed since the beginning of Christianity,” said Eric C. Smith, congregational outreach coordinator for the Maine Council of Churches.
At issue was whether the city should consider 101 Craigie St. a residence or a place of worship
Zoning Administrator Marge Schmuckal delivered Wilansky a letter in late May, ordering him to stop Saturday prayer services at his home.
City officials said Wilansky has used his Craigie Street home as a synagogue for years. They said that put him in violation of zoning regulations because his property did not meet the two-acre minimum for places of worship in a residential neighborhood.
Wilansky attorney Marshall Tinkle and the Maine Civil Liberties Union appealed the order, saying it was an unconstitutional encroachment on his religious liberties.
Board members said the decision was outside the purpose of the city’s zoning laws.
“The zoning ordinance is not intended to get into people’s houses and regulate their behavior,” board member Gordon Smith said.
City officials said the zoning rules are meant to prevent parking disputes and traffic congestion in residential areas – the same type of complaints that have dogged Wilansky for approximately five years.
The May directive followed the latest traffic complaint from neighbor Mary Lewis, who, along with anonymous tipsters and public works employees, said the 29-foot-wide street is too narrow to accommodate the additional parked cars during the winter.
Wilansky and his backers said the rule effectively prevented him from practicing his religion at home.The rabbi is a member of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, one of the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism, and director of Chabad Lubavitch of Maine, which lists its headquarters as his home. No synagogue in Maine practices that brand of orthodox Judaism.
His supporters said the most important prayer of the Sabbath requires a quorum of 10 men and strict orthodox rules prevent driving on Saturdays, limiting Wilansky’s options for religious expression.
Most of the prayer service participants either walk or get a ride. That means although approximately 15 worshipers visit his house on Saturdays, they bring with them just five or six cars, Wilansky said.
Neighbors who spoke at the meeting said they had no complaints about the prayer services. Some said they lived on the street for years before they knew about them.
“I don’t understand why there is so much contention over this,” said Ralph Johnson, who lives at 95 Craigie St.
The city’s planning department said the rabbi had more ambitious aims than simply hosting a weekly prayer group. Director Penny Littell pointed to an advertisement on his Web site (www.chabadofmaine.com) as proof that his home is open to the general public during Sabbath prayer services.
But appeals board members said the Wilansky home was far from a synagogue.
Unlike most houses of worship, Wilansky pays taxes on the property, has no sign outside advertising services and does not hold major religious ceremonies – weddings, for example – inside, they said.
“The big events that happen in a person’s religious life don’t seem to be taking place here,” board member Deborah Rutter said.